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Why Georgia is the place for black migration and politics

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Georgia has symbolized freedom in the black imagination since the arrival of enslaved Africans in the 1700s. Its dense forest and coastal islands gave safe haven to thousands of people fleeing bondage for better conditions.

To many African-Americans, the gubernatorial campaign of Democrat Stacey Abrams rekindled a desire for an autonomous space. The possibility came close to fruition, but for alleged voting shenanigans.

{mosads}The question now for black leaders is, where to go from here? Clearly, the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) has an obligation to call for hearings to assess claims of voter suppression. But just as importantly, the CBC has a role to play in developing a strategy to win the state.

A key component to any winning strategy is to grow the black voter base — and a potential tactic for growing the base is to promote a new migration to Georgia. Here’s how a coordinated migration might work, and why black leaders should promote it.

The midterms revealed that the margin for victory in Georgia is within reach. Abrams lost to Republican Brian Kemp by about 55,000 votes out of nearly 4 million votes cast. Clearly, a surge in the size of the black voter base could close such a gap and end a drought in state representation dating to Reconstruction.

A Georgia migration would tie in with a pattern of migration to the region since the 1990s. According to a 2004 study, “The New Great Migration: Black Americans’ Return to the South, 1965–2000,” published by the Brookings Institute, many students and professionals flocked to colleges and jobs in Washington, Atlanta, Charlotte and Orlando, among other southern cities. Older migrants were drawn to the culture and family ties of the South.The study concluded that the trend “reflects the South’s economic growth and modernization, its improved race relations, and the longstanding cultural and kinship ties it holds for black families.”

A new migration could build on this trend with an eye towards maximum political impact. Promoting Georgia as a destination for black retirees would help to develop sustainable growth in a voter base of over 30 percent today. And black influence in Georgia could have a spillover effect on other state campaigns, such as Democrat Andrew Gillum’s gubernatorial quest in Florida, as well as on representation in the U.S. Senate.

A migration project would require an effective ad campaign — perhaps CBC leaders could help raise funds for it? The desired market would be people nearing retirement with stable incomes from pensions, Social Security benefits and other assets. This generation understands the importance of voting from the civil rights movement.

{mossecondads}No doubt an ad campaign would have to appeal to the ideals of freedom and resistance in the Georgia territory. Even before the founding of Savannah in 1733, defiant Africans had run away from the rice plantations of Charleston, S.C., to create free settlements in its dense woodlands and isolated islands. These were known as maroon colonies. In some cases, they were left alone by Spanish Florida as a buffer zone to the British colony. African runaways also were given sanctuary by indigenous Indian societies such as the Yamassee and joined them in raids against the British.

After the Civil War, the emancipated slaves of the Georgia Sea Islands gained temporary ownership of coastal lands. In 1865, Union Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman issued Field Order No. 15 to break up the plantations and present ex-slaves with plots of land in compensation. Unfortunately, President Andrew Johnson stopped the policy of reparations before it could take root.

During the civil rights movement, the Atlanta-based Southern Christian Leadership Conference, a network of churches founded by Martin Luther King in 1957, was a powerful symbol of black cooperation. In 1968, “The Republic of New Afrika” was a controversial proposal to create a black nation in the South. The Malcolm X Society, influenced by anti-colonial movements in Africa, imagined a new country carved from territory of 10 southern states including Georgia. And let’s not forget the 1973 Gladys Knight recording of the iconic song, “Midnight Train to Georgia.”

In short, Georgia holds a special place in African-American folklore and its appeal could be used to market the state as a destination.   

Any ad campaign should target the black media outlets of northern centers — television shows, talk radio, news websites and newspapers in Milwaukee, Detroit, Cleveland and Baltimore, among others, as well as media in cities of less politically competitive southern states, such as Memphis, Nashville and Louisville.

To get people to consider cities other than Atlanta, the ads could tout the cost of living advantages of Macon, Savannah, Athens, Augusta, Columbus and many smaller municipalities. Politically, it makes sense to encourage the spreading out of new residents and the utilization of the state’s open primary system.

Black congressional leaders should do what they can to help maintain the infrastructure of Abrams’ political organization. Once talented people leave the state it will be difficult to rebuild networks. Most of all, the CBC must press the fight against voter suppression tactics and for a reinforced Voting Rights Act.

The Abrams organization and CBC also should initiate a program of political education in the black community. People need to better understand why state governance matters and why young people should seek offices. Black retirees can help to grow the voter base, but it will take younger people with roots in the community to handle state affairs.

No doubt it will pose a challenge to depict state governance in a sexy way. There is a glamour to running for president or U.S. Senate that is lacking in the offices of state governance. Yet participation in state affairs should be the direction of black politics in the post-Obama era. Perhaps Sens. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.) could sponsor related educational materials as part of their campaign outreach?

Black congressional leaders have an obligation to put forth the issue. Reps. Karen Bass (D-Calif.), chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, and John Lewis (D-Ga.) could take the lead by introducing a question to CBC membership:

What are the merits of a program of coordinated migration to achieve black political autonomy?

Roger House, Ph.D., is an associate professor of American studies at Emerson College in Boston. Since 2014, he has published, a library research guide on African-American history and culture. He has produced radio programs on African-American history for NPR, and is the author of “Blue Smoke: The Recorded Journey of Big Bill Broonzy.”

Tags Congressional Black Caucus Cory Booker Georgia John Lewis Karen Bass Movements for civil rights Southern United States Stacey Abrams

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